DUNEDIN — The director of Dunedin's award-winning pipe band might be getting a raise.
City commissioners have directed budget planners to increase band leader Iain Donaldson's salary as part of an anticipated cost-sharing partnership with the Pinellas County School District.
The collaboration restores funding the school system provided before the economy soured.
For several years, Dunedin has funded the position at a reduced rate of $15,000 a year. Booster clubs at Dunedin Highland Middle School and Dunedin High School have annually chipped in an additional $5,000 each.
The result: $25,000 a year, or about $8 an hour, for a year-round job that requires upwards of 60 hours a week plus self-funded travel to competitions and presentations around the world, including in Scotland and at Walt Disney World.
But last week, city staff announced that months of prodding had persuaded school superintendent Mike Grego and other school district staffers to verbally commit to an annual $20,000 for the position.
Dunedin commissioners unanimously voted to also raise the city's annual contribution to $20,000, contingent on a written commitment from district leaders.
That means a proposed $40,000 a year for Donaldson, as well as a cost savings for school volunteers who can now shift fundraising efforts toward uniforms, equipment and travel.
"That position was what was keeping our Scottish tradition going for years to come. It was teaching our youth," Vice Mayor Julie Ward Bujalski told the audience at last week's City Commission meeting, which included about a dozen former pipe band members. "It's a huge, huge win."
The city last school year expanded its program into the elementary level through after-school beginner piping and Scottish dance classes.
Commissioners and supporters said they will continue talks with the district in hopes of launching a Scottish arts academy at Dunedin High School that would create a niche and draw students from around Pinellas County, similar to magnet offerings at other high schools like Tarpon Springs High School, which has a culinary arts program.
Commissioners split on tax hike
Commissioners remain divided over City Manager Rob DiSpirito's suggestion that the city fill an anticipated multimillion dollar budget shortfall by raising the property tax rate next year by 10.4 percent.
Commissioners Julie Scales, Ron Barnette and Heather Gracy called the hike — to $3.73 per $1,000 of taxable assessed property value — "modest" and past due. It would generate $595,000 more in revenue a year, providing a steady income stream to fund public services.
But Julie Bujalski and Mayor Dave Eggers said they favor budget planners' Plan B: holding off on the tax rate increase for at least a year and instead filling the budget gap using risk safety fund reserves.
Plan B, they said, might let the city avoid a tax spike in future years by giving recently hired finance director Karen Feeney time to study funding alternatives and the economy time to improve.
The two also questioned the proposed use of risk safety reserves to fund expansion projects at the Dunedin Fine Art Center, Dunedin Historical Museum and Blatchley House.
The city manager said he prefers cash over a loan for those projects because the city needs to save debt capacity for future "unknowns," like the replacement city hall annex and either improvements or repurposing of Florida Auto Exchange Stadium.
However, Bujalski objects to using risk safety funds outside that department. And Eggers said loan rates today are cheaper than they will be in a few years.
Furthermore, Bujalski said, she's uncomfortable with several budget recommendations that run counter to those presented by the previous finance director.
After watching a July commission workshop, the Board of Finance, a citizen volunteer group that reviews the budget, wrote a letter supporting Plan B. Bujalski said the group recently complained that members didn't have the opportunity to review several budget items, as they have in the past.
"We haven't done the things we need to do to know (that a millage increase is) needed or how much is needed," Bujalski said after the meeting. "I'm not just going to vote on a number. What's also weighing heavily on me is how unhappy the finance board is. They felt they were left in the dark. Their words are, 'There were more questions than answers.' "
Residents can weigh in on the budget during public hearings set for Sept. 12 and 26. The commission adopts the final budget at the Sept. 26 meeting, and the new budget year starts Oct. 1.
Keyonna Summers can be reached at (727) 445-4153 or [email protected] To write a letter to the editor, go to tampabay.com/letters.